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“I don’t think even he realizes how scary he can be,” says a Steppenwolf colleague.
I‘m on the line with Tracy Letts’s mom, Billie, in Tulsa. “Tracy tells me you started as a teacher,” I remark, in the fond belief that I’m conducting an interview.
“He didn’t tell you about the prostitution or my selling drugs, did he?” chirps the late-60ish professor’s wife who has spent her retirement years writing and publishing novels, including an Oprah-selected bestseller called Where the Heart Is.
“He didn’t mention it.”
“OK, well, we probably should start there,” she says. “As soon as I got out of prison . . . .”
The woman’s a pistol.
“My mother has a perverse sense of humor,” agrees Letts fils, the 41-year-old Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member whose handful of original plays have inspired everything from apoplexy to Pulitzer Prize consideration and a film deal. “She picked me up from school once when I was a little kid. Normally my dad picked me up. And I get in the car and I say, ‘Where’s Dad?’ She says, ‘Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this. Your father and I have separated. People love each other, but then they grow apart and your father and I have decided to get a divorce.’ I’m probably eight years old. Well, of course, I immediately start welling up. She jabs me in the ribs and says, ‘Just kiddin’!'”
And with that, Tracy Letts—tall, fair, Midwest affable, and so pale-pink-skinned that he can look at times like an albino with a sunburn—lets loose his high, hard cackle of a laugh. Taken aback, I ask what it was like growing up with a mother like that. “Hilarious,” he gasps between cackles. Didn’t you resent it? “Fuck no. Hilarious.”
I’m pretty sure he means it, too. Because Letts himself is something of a pistol. Under the right circumstances, a full-out bazooka. His first play—Killer Joe, which premièred at Evanston’s Next Lab in 1993—was a mean-funny piece of trailer-trash pulp so vulgar, violent, and arguably nihilistic that even Billie’s initial response on reading it was to tell her boy he had created something “horrible.” He followed that with Bug, a sort of sci-fi-horror-romance-at once ridiculous, ghastly, and perversely poignant—about love as a form of infestation. Even Letts’s career as an actor is constructed, in large part, around characters who convey a cool, often amused menace—a sense of smoothly contained rage. What his friend and Steppenwolf colleague Amy Morton calls his “Mr. Danger” persona. “I don’t think even he realizes how scary he can be,” Morton says. Another longtime actor friend, Jeff Still, adds that Letts came to be known early on as “Jimmy Stewart with an ax.”
But Letts’s m.o. took a surprising turn in the fall of 2003, with the première of his third play, Man from Nebraska. The depravity, the grotesquery, the manic speed, noise, laughs, and—above all—rage of Bug and Killer Joe were suddenly gone. In their place, the tale of Ken Carpenter, a middle-class, middle-aged Baptist with a long marriage, two grown daughters, and a dying mother, who loses his faith in God and goes off to figure out what to do next.
Possibly more radical than the change of subject, though, was the great and—for Letts—anomalous quiet that suffused this play. The first scene of Man from Nebraska contains only two spoken lines: Ken’s wife, Nancy, saying, “They’re finally going to tear down that ugly house,” and Ken responding, “Mm,” as they take the Sunday drive to church. A stage direction reads, “KEN drives. NANCY . . . looks out the window. KEN drives. They sit in the car. KEN drives.”
“I read it and I was immediately struck by the simplicity of it,” says Rick Snyder, who originated the role of Ken. “I love the fact that the play starts and nobody says anything. You see these people sit in their car. They go to eat at the cafeteria. There’s barely a word uttered for, what, 15 or 20 minutes. . . .
“Here’s a man who’s written brutal plays like Bug and Killer Joe, and here’s this gentle, simple story about average people. It just blew me away."
Of course, it’s not as if the old bazooka Letts had disappeared without a trace. As the Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips points out, the playwright manages to find room in all that quiet for a sex scene involving wrist restraints: “All of a sudden the handcuffs come out and you think, Well, there’s Tracy Letts again.” But Letts was clearly out to project a new voice. Things are allowed to take their time in Man from Nebraska; the quiet grows and changes and ultimately becomes a kind of declaration. The Pulitzer Prize board—which had previously considered and rejected Bug—recognized Man from Nebraska as a nominated finalist for the 2004 award in drama.
Now Letts has turned yet again. His new play—set to run June 28th through August 26th in a Steppenwolf mounting directed by Anna D. Shapiro (who also directed the première production of Man from Nebraska)—is a three-act, three-and-a-quarter-hour, 13-character family saga with traumatic autobiographical resonances and large aspirations, called August: Osage County. For Jeff Still the ambition of the piece suggests Letts’s “willingness to roll up his sleeves and say, Let’s get O’Neill about this, let’s get Chekhov about this.” For Letts himself it’s just “hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done. It. Is. The. Hardest. Thing. I’ve. Done. It’s a hard play.”
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Photograph: Andreas Larsson